This is an excerpt from my recent interview with Therese Schroeder-Sheker for JESUS THE IMAGINATION, VOL 3: CHRIST-ORPHEUS. You can read the entire interview and an essay by Therese in the print version.
When Therese Schroeder-Sheker was an undergraduate music student working as an orderly in a geriatric nursing home, she saw at firsthand how death in contemporary culture is outsourced, how the elderly and declining among us are warehoused in containment environments until finally sent to the ultimate salvage facility. She knew this way of going about things was wrong (I think, somewhere within us, we all do), yet she didn’t possess an answer until the day when she found herself present to the death of an elderly (and often cantankerous) emphysema patient. Not exactly knowing what to do, she nevertheless did what she knew: she held the man and she sang. Inspired by the moment and by the death that unfolded before her, she sang the entire Mass of the Angels, the Adoro te devote of Thomas Aquinas, the Ubi Caritas, the Salve Regina, and the Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this combined moment of song and prayer, Schroeder-Sheker not only helped a fellow human being enter the spiritual world, she also discerned her vocation. That is, she heard a call. Or, more accurately, one of the three calls that have shaped her vocation. The first, she tells me, was the Eucharist, the second was the dying man, and the third was harp.
Born in Detroit to immigrant parents (her mother was from Ireland and her father from Malta), Schroeder-Sheker was initially an art major, but changed to music when a sensitive Jesuit professor at Denver’s Regis College recognized she had a wonderful ear for music and encouraged her to pursue it as a course of study. She studied piano, woodwinds, and composition, but after completing her baccalaureate and spending time in Europe, she came home and commissioned her first harp. At the age of twenty-six she switched from piano to harp as her primary instrument (to which she subsequently added the psaltery and voice). Three years later, she made her debut at Carnegie Hall as a harpist and singer.
Schroeder-Sheker’s recordings (under the Windham Hill and Celestial Harmonies labels among others) and touring schedule supported her bi-vocation in what she eventually termed music-thanatology, the art of assisting the dying through music, and to this end she founded The Chalice of Repose Project, the first music-thanatology organization in the world.
Schroeder-Sheker’s clinical work is deeply rooted in Cluniac spirituality, though her grounding in medieval music and spirituality should not be understood as academic or theoretical in the least. Indeed, her work’s vitality is marked by an absolute attentiveness to the present moment, be it in life or death, which is what gives such immediacy and vitality to her project.
I first encountered Schroeder-Sheker’s work at least twenty-five years ago when my wife bought a CD from Celestial Harmonies that featured her beautiful track “Rosa Mystica,” a haunting musical prayer featuring her transcendent contralto accompanied by psaltery and bells. I fell in love with that piece, that voice. A few years later when I was working as a Waldorf teacher, I invited psychologist Robert Sardello to give a talk at a conference and in conversing with him I learned about his work as a faculty member at The Chalice of Repose Project; he told me a great deal about Therese’s clinical work. Then, three years ago I began communicating with Therese when she contacted my publisher after reading one of my books. So, it’s safe to say that she has inhabited my soul for a good long while. We conducted this interview over the course of a few weeks, via email and telephone.
MM: Therese, when I think of your work, I can’t help but think of you as a kind of Orpheus figure, but I also know you well enough to know that this would make you wince. Can you speak to your roots? Whether mythic or sacramental or both? Can you say something about your spiritual formation? What individuals or elements were influential to you as a young person emerging into the larger professional world? And, after four-plus decades of career and vocation, has any of that early influence remained? Sustained work and travel, sustained scholarship, and cumulative life experience have allowed you to encounter many different voices and cultures. How has diversity shaped you? As a contemplative, a musician and composer, a writer?
TSS: Well, one Orphic element that I do know inwardly is the grief that comes with the loss of the Beloved. Thankfully, the transformative possibilities that arise from going all the way through (not around) that kind of loss are vast. Eventually, one can choose a life of faithfulness and fine-tuning. Those are Orphic themes and signatures. Other than that, I’m basically a gal from Motown.
I was born in Detroit yet raised in Chicago, and my earliest memories of beauty are intrinsically tied up with Carmel. From my mother I received the power of the word, whether written, spoken or sung. She also brought me to the Carmelites in Des Plaines, and even at the age of eight, I was sort of pierced with the beauty of Carmelite monastic culture and monastic liturgy. On top of that, my mom encouraged and supported the love of reading. She was resourceful and subversive about the need to resist television, so books and reading were her strongest antidote. From my father I received a gift of equal creativity and vitality. He thought imaginatively, spoke in pictures, and said repeatedly: You can do anything if you love it. He didn’t suggest contingencies such as: you can do something once you’re an adult...or, when you get married you can…or, after you get your degree you can…. This manner of speech was not part of his makeup. Nor did he point to the exterior conventional markers that seem to convey institutional validation or imply some kind of collective authority, but rather, he taught about the transformative power of love which is something one can nurture and generate within, regardless of circumstances. The main thing to relay is that he was a scientist, fully capable of data analysis, he was a walking slide rule, yet he functioned imaginatively.
For instance: as a girl, I had a terrible time with math and assumed that this must mean that I was stupid or deficient. My dad came home from the office one day and saw me struggling at the table where I was frowning and sputtering over fractions. “Honey, I see what the problem is! You don’t love it. Math is a game, only a game. Let me help. I can show you how to love it….” He then proceeded to translate all mathematical abstractions into living images and the whole entangled mess unraveled into a shimmering ribbon that was a source of joy and elegance. Boom. Overnight—D-minus pouty-face to A-minus gleam.
My sense of things is that the parental inheritance I received was simply perfect for who or what or how or why it is that I breathe and live. These were the very currents I truly needed to sail the vessel that was to become not just life but my particular life, so I feel gratitude and awe for their attunement, their insights and intuitions….
MM: It seems that you don’t separate life from work, or music from prayer, or clinical care from vocation. They are all interconnected. So let me start with music. The music you have composed and recorded—and the Catholic culture in which you were raised—I hear your connections to Tradition in the music you embody, and yet you go beyond. Seamlessly. Distinctly. Can you say something more about Catholic sensibilities, or about the composers who have been formative for you, or about your relationship to harp or voice?
TSS: That’s a big swath. Let me try. After we left Detroit and moved to Des Plaines, I attended Mass every day of my life, summer and winter, from second grade to eighth grade graduation, because I could walk to Mass, needed no parental driving. I wanted to do this; no one pushed it. It was lovely to get up early, make tea for my dad, and then walk to Mass before school. I sang in the parish choir for daily mass and loved it, and my mom drove me to Carmel many weekends, so the beauty of monastic liturgy gradually became metabolized. It sealed me. You must know what this means. You literally breathe it in, breathe and phrase the exact text and content.
Translated, this means (among many other things) that every fiber of being was not only being sculpted in music, but raised inside modality, modal music. (Modal music is very nuanced toward degrees of light and dark, and is very sensitively colored). The chant literature at that time was pre-Vatican II, and reflected the Latin texts, yet remained largely unmetered. The chant literature I heard was suffused in timelessness, this sense of the eternal was palpable in the shape of the melody and the meaning of the texts. In addition, the transition from being someone who attended Mass to someone who became Eucharistic took place early on, and deeply. I remain a Eucharistic person, and note that that can be very different from one’s relationship to an institution. I never confused the two realities. I mean, I don’t conflate the direct contact intimacy with Christ that is so possible in prayer with the relationship one might have to a large impersonal and structured institution.
MM: But your composition teachers. Surely they asked you to become informed by and conversant with tonality, and polytonality, and atonality, and many schools of composition?
TSS: Yes. Every period from antiquity to the 20th century. And, thankfully, some of the British composers unashamedly explored modality and polymodality even after Schoenberg, not as a throwback, but as an advanced form of recollection. As a lover of music, someone who is always still learning from the nature and significance of music, I listen to music from radically different time periods and cultures, written tradition and oral tradition, and approach them with few preconceived notions. I cannot say enough for Bach, Mahler, Scriabin and Finzi. The same is true for the Bulgarian choirs and the music of Zimbabwe.
As a performer, I have always found myself personally moved, startled and changed by the possibilities arising from the margins and edges, from the two farthest shores—ancient and modern. Something from ancient Greece is at times as compelling to me as an Olivier Messiaen or a Paul Hindemith. But that being said: I don’t want to live on the planet without Bach. Musically, to me, Bach is in equal parts terrestrial and cosmic, something like the center as well as the periphery, the heart as well as the North, South, East and West of body, soul and spirit. He developed his horizontality as deeply as his verticality, and I have never stopped learning from him. And of course, I love the contemporary metaphysical minimalists: Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki. They allow you to breathe and expand while deepening, and in spiritual terms, I think of them as the masters of recollection....
... Years later, as an artist and scholar, I would study and metabolize the works of the Renaissance master Marsilio Ficino, who understood Plato and the healing nature of the self-accompanied song. So it is that we discover and rediscover lineage, in its deepest and broadest sense, always emerging like a fresh spring, and perennially going underground again whenever the waters become muddied or too compromised. After every period of desiccation, it re-emerges again when and where the time is right: usually miles and light-years away.
Therese in a clip from a 1991 television broadcast. Lyrics below.
For the Roses
(text and music TSS)
He was a drummer one summer
with time on his hands.
And all that mattered was scattered
I never knew what a darkened lie
But then the clock stopped
With no child in my arms:
I held roses.
On a bright stage for no wage
we were playin’ for peace.
And in the cafes those sweet days
held Love’s lease.
We never know where a rose might bloom
But when your heart stops to the beat of a drum:
You’ll hear roses.
I hope this finds you and binds you
to the part of your soul
that you tasted but wasted:
On old roles
That you needed but conceded:
to old roles
Still you held it and then melted:
All of the wounds from the thorns of dark desire,
they dissolve now and they shine in my eyes:
Much like roses.
You’re such a liar
but your voice on the wire:
Would be roses.
And when you hear this,
please don’t fear what you’ve missed:
Just send roses.